Early voting is now underway.
All states were required by federal law to deliver military and overseas ballots last Saturday and as of Thursday, Sept. 27, all but twenty-one states have reached their deadlines to start early voting for domestic civilians. Within some of these latter states -- notably Ohio -- some local election officials have already begun mailing ballots to domestic civilians who requested them in advance of their state's deadline.
I call any ballot cast prior to Election Day an early vote, be it by mail or in-person at a special polling location.
So, what do the numbers tell us so far? Well, not a lot. But that hasn't stopped people from drawing wild conclusions from seemingly-surprising numbers in the few states were statistics are available.
Is Obama crushing Romney in Iowa? Registered Democrats comprise 64 percent of the 185,747 requested ballots so far, compared to 13 percent of registered Republicans. While an Iowa Republican operative grimaces at these numbers, it is important to understand that Democrats usually do very well among Iowan early voters. In 2008, registered Democrats were 50 percent of Iowa's 481,179 early votes compared to 29 percent for registered Republicans. Day to day, the 2012 number is slowly declining as more Republicans request ballots than Democrats, so there is ample time for Republicans to catch up. One of the ways that they might do so is through a state law that allows a hundred people to petition for a special in-person early voting site, which evangelicals are taking advantage of to request Sunday early voting sites at their churches.
Is Romney winning North Carolina? Registered Republicans are 53 percent of the 78,801 requested mail ballots so far, compared to 27 percent for registered Democrats. So, if the election was stopped today, Romney likely would win. Unfortunately for Romney, only 13 percent of all North Carolina early votes were cast by mail in 2008, while 87 percent were cast at in-person polling locations. Democrats overwhelmingly voted early in-person in 2008 and 2004, so once that option becomes available in October, the 2012 numbers will likely dramatically shift in Obama's favor.
Are Ohio Republicans energized to vote early compared to 2012? Yes, but there is an important change from 2008 that likely accounts for this. Party registration is somewhat meaningless in Ohio since it only indicates which party primary a voter last participated in. More meaningful is the distribution of vote among counties. Looking at rural counties won by McCain in 2008, the number of mail ballot requests is up by a higher percentage than the urban counties won by McCain. It is noteworthy that mail ballot requests are higher in urban counties, too, and also had higher levels of early voting than rural counties in 2008.
The big, under-reported change from 2008 is that all Ohio registered voters were mailed an absentee ballot request form this year. People were thus prompted to request ballots, and we might expect this to have a greater effect in rural counties with lower volumes of early voting in 2008. We'll have to wait to see if those requesting ballots were people who would have otherwise voted if they hadn't requested the mail ballot.
If there is one takeaway that I see in the earliest of early vote numbers is that voters are engaged in this election. Surveys are showing similarly high levels of interest in the election, and at least some of the recent polling movement towards Obama and other Democratic candidates is from Democrats who have finally engaged now that the fall is upon us. There is no compelling evidence yet that there will be a dramatic decrease in turnout come November.